When starting a business many think coming up with a name, developing a logo or even crafting a slogan or catchphrase is the extent of branding. The reality is, there is so much more.
“It’s a mistake to think, ‘My brand is my graphic identity,’” said Flip Wright, executive vice president of strategy and innovation at Wide Awake. “That’s a very small part of the overall mix. When people step inside your place of business, what does it look and feel like, how are they greeted, how are employees dressed? Your brand includes all the experiences people have in their relationships with you. It’s what they think about you as an organization and every touch point they have with you.”
Mary Ann Mele, chief brand officer at R&R Partners (R&R), explained, “A brand is the relationship between a company and its consumers, an organization and its stakeholders or even a candidate and the voters.”
Since marketing experts define branding as establishing and maintaining relationships, a company’s graphic identity is only a small component in a never-ending interplay between the business and the people who use its products or services.
How important is branding? According to Jim Gentleman, chief strategy officer at SK+G, “In many cases, branding may be the key point of differentiation when people have so many different commodities to choose from.” Therefore, it’s important for any organization, even a well-established business, to take a close look at its branding strategy and search for ways to maximize and leverage its relationships with consumers.
An essential part of any business plan is conducting market research to determine whether it makes financial sense to establish a new enterprise. Who are the chief competitors? What’s the target audience? If there’s nearby competition where the business will be located – whether it’s a bakery, a real estate agency or a dry cleaner – what will set the business apart? The answers to these questions can form the basis of branding strategy.
“The place to start in defining your brand is to determine what your values are,” said Gentleman. “What do you stand for? Do you want to be known as the company with the best price, the friendliest employees, the best tasting food, etc.?” Mele calls this process “understanding your truth.”
Once this identity crisis is solved, a business owner needs to think about the people who will be involved in the branding relationship. “Understand what your customer’s truth is,” said Mele. “What is going on in their lives? What do they need? Where the company truth and the consumer truth intersect is the sweet spot where the brand exists.”
Research is the key to finding out a customer’s truth. Mele explained helping a client establish a brand starts with mountains of data that is analyzed and boiled down to arrive at the essence of the brand.
“Simplifying is the hardest thing we do in the process of branding,” she said. “The most important part is throwing out what doesn’t matter and keeping only the thing that matters most. If your company can get to that essence – one word surrounded by five or six core values that you live by and make decisions by – you can move mountains.”
Fifteen years ago, R&R boiled down its data to arrive at the essence of the Las Vegas brand for their client, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). The brand they developed was “adult freedom,” which came to life in their iconic “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” campaign.
“For our Las Vegas tourism campaign, we market Las Vegas as the ultimate escape, the antidote to stress and routine,” Mele said. “We’re saying, ‘We give you permission to have fun, we empower you, we welcome you.’”
The power of this brand is evidenced by the fact that R&R’s campaign has survived 15 years of changing demographics and economic ups and downs, and remains as relevant and successful as ever.
The Abbi Agency recently used research to help the City of Henderson rebrand its economic development agency. The firm set up several focus groups to find out people’s perceptions of Henderson, and to determine if they would want to start a small business there. The focus group feedback showed that a common perception for Henderson, especially among young people, was that it was a place people go to retire, rather than a place for dynamic or young businesses and entrepreneurs.
Armed with those research findings, the agency was able to tailor its rebranding efforts to position the city as an energetic, forward-thinking community.
Once a company has decided on a brand that reflects its core values and the message it wants to communicate to the public, the next step is to identify all the places where customers interact with the business: incoming phone calls, store locations, website, use of the product and more. Branding should be consistent throughout all these touch points, and uniform brand messaging must be communicated through all channels, including advertising, public relations and social media.
It’s also vital to be true to the brand promise. A store whose brand promise is “quality for less” needs to shop its competitors regularly to make sure customers can’t find the same goods cheaper elsewhere. Everyone in the company should know its brand promise and commit to delivering it. If an organization’s brand is “great customer service,” but people are not greeted by friendly team members committed to helping them, its marketing money has been wasted.
The basics of branding have remained the same for many years, but the way brands are communicated has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, primarily because of the digital revolution, starting with the internet and moving on to social media.
“Getting your message out today is a lot more complicated than it was when you only had print, radio, TV and outdoor,” said Mele, who has been in the business for nearly 40 years. “Technology changes create new opportunities, but that also means you have to educate everyone involved and the learning curve has been amazing. In the last 30 years we’ve moved from communicating to the masses to developing a piece of communication that follows you around on different digital platforms. Another thing about tech is that it’s now both push and pull – you not only send your message out, but you also receive feedback in return.”
Wright encourages his clients to pay attention to online reviews and social media. “Some of my clients have frustrations with online review sites because they’re often negative, but they also present an opportunity to get real-time feedback about where your product or service might be missing the mark, allowing you to make it better,” he said. “Reviewers may even mention something valuable or positive about your product that you hadn’t been leveraging. Listening to feedback and acting accordingly is the sign of a very in-tune business owner.”
Besides the technological changes that have taken place over the last decades, social changes have created new branding opportunities and challenges. Consumers have grown to expect brands will do something for society at large, so cause marketing or purpose-based marketing is another way to stand out from the competition.
Abbi Whitaker, co-founder and president of The Abbi Agency, noted, “The millennial audience is more likely to do business with a company they believe is giving back to their community, so we sometimes build a campaign around cause marketing.”
She mentioned Toms Shoes as a classic example. The company has achieved great success by advertising that for every pair of shoes sold, it donates a pair to a child in need. Some companies tap into concerns for the environment by advertising zero-landfill factories or low-waste packaging. Restaurants and food suppliers promote free-range poultry or ethical sourcing of coffee beans.
“The challenge is not just saying it, but doing it,” warned Whitaker. “Make sure you do what you say and deliver on your promise, or you’ll be exposed quickly. You have to be authentic. If not, people will sniff you out.” One of the dangers of being exposed is that it’s likely to go viral, erasing any good will a company may have built up.
Another way to engage with prospective customers is to align a brand with its community, whether it’s sponsoring a Little League team, partnering with a local non-profit or having employees volunteer at community events. One organization that has achieved success through its community efforts is the Vegas Golden Knights.
SK+G provided creative and media services to help the Knights launch their brand. “It was important to communicate that the team was of Vegas and from Vegas. They didn’t move here from another city,” said Gentleman. “They’ve done a tremendous job embracing the community. After the October 1 tragedy, the team became a source of pride, recovery and healing.”
The Knights also focus on off-ice experiences, working with local schools and charities, and their foundation raises funds for charitable giving by holding raffles at each home game.
Ask an Expert
With the ever-changing tech landscape, and the need to keep up with social and demographic changes, it’s important to ask for help with branding, especially when first starting out.
“It’s good to get an outside perspective,” said Wright. “An impartial observer may be able to tell you that your messaging is not that unique or that your brand lacks broad appeal. If you can’t afford a marketing firm to help you, at least enlist some people you trust to give you their unbiased opinions.”
Mele concluded, “The world is changing so fast that very few businesses are not at some kind of crossroads. The amount of pressure on CEOs and their executive teams is monumental. Find someone to guide you in branding. You need a specialist to help you stay current with what’s going on in the outside landscape, while you’re concentrating on building your business.”